He’d ask them if they knew any magic, and the two would share fried fish and fresh local vegetables. They’d tell him about whatever troubled them – fire starting, soaking the cat when it tipped something over, a bit of gentle earth rumbling during a baseball game. He would talk. He’d ask what had been bothering them. He’d make sure they were okay. He’d tell them to come back, now and then. He’d give them a book, an assignment, a letter of recommendation if they were older and interested and he didn’t think they’d get bored.
Children always looked a little shamefaced, because they felt like they shouldn’t have done whatever accidental magic landed them in the cave.
Then came the scripted part.
“But Mister, how do I get good at magic?” Girl and boy alike asked and asked, with the phrasing just so.
He’d tell them the same thing, every time:
“You’re lucky. But lots of people are lucky. You’re smart, but even I’m smart. Magic comes in all kinds. Be good. Try being good. You’re impatient, you’re headstrong, you yell, you cry. But you’ve been kind and shared a meal with someone you don’t know. You are more than your mistakes, but you still make them.”
The man would wrap up a portion of the food for the child’s family, and hand it to them at this point.
“Good for you. Now go tell people that’s okay, and start with yourself. Okay to cry and rage and throw a pot now and then. But under it all, be good. Good for yourself, and good for people. I’d give up my magic to be a better cook. Find something you’d give up magic to be good at, and then you’ll be good. And good at magic.”
“I don’t know about that,” the child would say. The man would smile, in his knowing way, and the child would leave.
This only happened now and then, when a child came of age to accidentally do magic.
But when the man came to town for ingredients and sundries, he’d have a smile on his face for weeks after such a visit.
Eventually the village grew, and there were so many children visiting him that the smile was more or less permanent, and he was nearing forty years in age. The smile and positive outlook made him look quite handsome. He took a wife around then – a minstrel his age with flowing blonde hair and many laugh lines. Eschewing the cave, she built a small hut next to it overlooking the sea.
“A cave is no place to do your knitting,” she said. “Nor keep your cats – they need heat and hearth and so too do I.”
Happiness is built on compromise. Hermit he may be, but he understood and began to sleep in the house. But he still never went to town but twice a month.
The two never had children, but they gardened and lived together in their little enclave on the hill. In time, his wife’s sister had a boy. When the boy turned twelve, he walked into the cave with a sack of local produce and a fish he caught himself. The hermit, now over fifty, was standing there. His wife watched the boy walk in with every sign of pride, as she tended their bean crop.
The hermit and the little black haired boy talked about why he was there. The boy had teleported. That was difficult magic. So the old man asked him what happened, and why. It turned out the boy had left his school’s gym class and showed up on the roof in the blink of an eye. Some more questioning, a good meal between them. There were a lot of dire warnings, things the boy would have to keep in mind because:
“You have the gift of the Wish,” said the man.
“Oh,” said the boy.
They talked for some time, and the man spoke as honestly as he could. At the end, it came time for the ritual exchange.
“I don’t know about that,” the boy said – ending their exchange. But he continued: “But mom always wants to see you, and Aunt Grace is sad you never come down and she doesn’t tell you and mom said not to say and…”
The boy thought about wishing magic, he thought about the warnings, he thought about the hermit and the sad look on his face.
“I wish I could trade my magic so you’d come cook-”
But the mage was faster. The boy didn’t get time to complete the wish before a calloused hand was clamped over his mouth.
“Shhh, okay, lad, okay.”
When they had negotiated a ceasefire, the boy stopped wishing and the mage removed his hand. He knew what the boy was going to say. He’d seen it, the lad wanted to get rid of his burden.
But he’d awakened another burden in the hermit’s heart, and his question only highlighted it:
“Mister, why are you crying?”
“I’ve wasted time,” said the man, between racking sobs that belied long years of stoic and grumpy good humour. Cradling the boy against him and trying to hide his face, the hermit just shook.
“You can be good, though, right? Be good at the things you don’t do.”
“Yes,” the man said while wiping his face dry on one long robe sleeve.
“We’re both more than our mistakes. Tell your mother I’ll be by for dinner.”
The man opened a little cafe in town. He named it after a creature known for transformations.
The villagers were slightly confused and dismayed, but the ritual barely changed. Now children had to march into his cavernous and sparkling kitchen, past the chickens in the yard and his wife in her sun hat. Now they had to go somewhere scarier than a mere cave.
He grew huge bushy eyebrows, but kept his red hair. He still walked with a limp, as he had since he was quite a young man. His wife played guitar and piano out front, and went finding glass on the beaches. Life was good.
Then some of the children came back, now grown. A whole group of them who had left for one of the large magical academies in America. They’d had no luck at magic academies overseas, their credentials weren’t recognized even with his letter of recommendation. They wanted him to teach them, but they also needed a license to get a job.
“Grace, I think we should go across and see how your nephew is doing in America.”
A 57 year old Greek ex-hermit, his wife, and his sister in law moved to the east coast of America about fifty years ago. It was hard, but he was convincing and peerless. The “children” now in their thirties became the first faculty, and he brought an old kind of nature and artifice magic to the west coast. Calling was much in vogue, and so it was difficult to get a foothold.
The particular exploits of that family are best found in the college’s history archives, but eventually they got started.
To this day, any child who shows up at the college with a bushel of food and “the right temperament” will be assessed, placed, and potentially offered a future scholarship. That isn’t the only tradition to have survived.